How to Raise a Socially Conscious Child

Since developing this website and speaking on behalf of it, I periodically hear variations of: “This is not as simple as you make it sound. Make me a believer and I will be totally on board.”  I get it, and all the more reason for the slogan of this website: “Listen, Speak Up, Engage and Unite.” I can’t promise this blog post will make you a believer, but it should give you a better idea of how we have been working to raise socially conscious children.

My experiences have shown me that parents and teachers don’t spend much time thinking about the socially unjust world children are navigating until a child asks them a tough question. The parents and teachers who have considered it often focus on the injustice and inequity related to their own experiences, which makes complete sense. As a White privileged cisgender man, I recognize that it is a privilege to be able to have the emotional bandwidth to consider other systems of oppression.

This blog post discusses six aspects of raising socially conscious children that have guided our conversations and thought process as our children have come of age. The content focuses on the parent experience, but it is applicable to teachers who are culturally responsive and espouse culturally humility.

Aspect one: Recognize the influence of early socialization

A child’s identity begins to take shape well before they are born. Typically, as soon as a mother knows she is pregnant the fetus is immediately assumed to have a racial identity. In most cases, the nationality, native language(s), social class, and spiritual affiliation are also assumed.  Many of these identity markers, as well as others markers are subconscious or mentioned without much thought.

Around 16 weeks gestation, for a majority of mothers a child’s sex (male/female) identity becomes known. With that information comes assumptions of gender (boy/girl), and sexuality (more often than not, straight). With all that in mind, adults begin to paint the picture of their, hopes and dreams for the expected child. Bobbie Harro provides a great framework for better understanding the aforementioned process.

Aspect two: Consider the symbols around children

When both of our children were born our home was covered in symbols representing the hopes and dreams for them and us.  From gender neutral clothes, accessories, toys and furniture to bilingual and multicultural books and music. The symbols served two subconscious purposes.  The first was to condition us for welcoming our children into a world that reflected values and beliefs we want to transfer to them.  The second was to understand the purposes and meaning of the resources available and unavailable.

The truth is that by the time our oldest was two-years-old it seemed that everything our daughter wanted was a toy vomiting pink or purple. She was resistant to speaking Spanish and she wanted nothing more than to be a Disney princess. At the time, my wife and I threw our hands up and dropped our heads succumbing to the reality that messages of what it means and what it doesn’t mean to be a girl were all around her the moment we walked outside of our home. Despite this, we stayed strong and did not change the symbols and messages in our home.

Around three-years-old, when she began to verbalize an awareness of gender, race, and language we were able to use the symbols she had been exposed to since birth to gradually begin to explicitly talk about how those symbols tell us who should and should not be included.

As our children have aged I’ve noticed that answers to tough questions are more nuanced and rarely straightforward. Books and movies don’t necessarily cut it. Instead, we have to depend on their daily lived experiences.

Aspect three: Live out values and beliefs that reflect justice and equity

After each child was born we consistently considered how we were supporting their construction of a social world that made them feel like, regardless of their group identities, they belonged. Our past times, social circles, and professional decisions were all a reflection of these values and beliefs. As they have aged and their friendships take precedent over picture books and movies, we depend on the daily experiences to problem solve encounters with injustice and inequity.

My daughter, like many children, experiences bullying. On the surface, this may not seem like a conversation about social justice and equity, but bullying, just like prejudice and discrimination is the culmination of learned behaviors. Bullying is one individual using tools to have power over others. The bully is actively working to silence, marginalize and oppress. Similarly to marginalization and systems of oppression, the solutions are not simple and no one can truly understand another’s experiences and the pain they feel. The values and beliefs that combat systemic violence can also apply to the combat of personal violence.

Aspect four: Learn to critically evaluate and interpret social messages

For our first daughter, it was Repunzel (Tangled), Cinderella and Merida (Brave).  I could except Merida; Rapunzel was tolerable; Cinderella was unacceptable, but of course the princess of choice.  Our second daughter’s princess experience began with Queen Elsa and Princess Anna (Frozen); while I wasn’t a huge fan, the main characters were two sisters rather than a princess and a prince which I appreciated. The story ends with one another being true love rather than Prince Hans.

All of the other princesses had their moments, but as time passed and I continued to learn how to be more intentional about how we could use the princesses as teaching tools. We did our best to keep the focus on Brave, Frozen, and more recently Inside Out, Home, Coco, and Moana. We discovered that we must use the foundational symbols to transfer values and beliefs into the growing interests of a child. As tempting as it was, it was unproductive to take the lead, especially after two-years-old.

Aspect five: Expose children to the unfamiliar

If I have yet to get my point across, I’ll say it one more time: The earlier parents and other caregivers can begin to address social injustice and inequity, the more prepared and open children will ask difficult questions about our complex society. If you have reviewed my past blog posts, you will notice that I often set myself up to prompt inquiry from my children. In order to make the learning experiences meaningful, parents must expose their children to news stories and opportunities to question the unfamiliar. No more depending on storybooks, Disney or typical family routines.

A recent article I read, in addition to all of the current atrocities in our country, have made it clear for us that we need to be proactive with exposing our children to authentic and real-life experiences with people who are not part of their normal everyday routines. If children only know what it means to be an immigrant, a person of color, a person with a disability, LGBTQIA+ from images and messages that come from TV or in the media, isms will only strengthen. It doesn’t matter how hard you work on aspects one through four if we don’t provide children with real-life experiences with diversity none of it matters.

This reminds me of a quote from Anne Wilson Schaef: “Differences challenge assumptions.

Aspect six: Prepare yourself to become a follower

Accept that your influence as a parent or caregiver will begin to diminish as children get older.  That does not mean you need to step back and let things unfold in the hands of peer relationships.  On the contrary, you must become increasingly available to step into tough conversations. You must continue to provide resources for children and develop children’s ability to think critically about the contradictory messages they receive from friends, media, the community, family and whatever else. Values and beliefs about what’s right and what’s wrong should be as constant as possible.

Be their guiding light when they find themselves in the darkness of middle childhood. Show them that regardless of the messages they may be receiving that minimize their identities, they matter. You need to keep learning and learn with your child(ren) and let them teach you.

As the cliché goes, children are our future. There is no greater time than now to be mindful of that and work to raise socially conscious children. If you want a future where black lives/minds matter, women are given a voice and not objectified, and human rights apply to all then we must listen, speak up, engage and unite, because, from the earliest stages of socialization, our children are listening.

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